How Smoke Alarms Save Lives

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smoke alarm safety


By Michael Tobias

Smoke alarms save lives by providing an early warning system of fire, enabling people to escape. It’s as simple as that! But they must be installed correctly and properly maintained to be of any use at all. 

Alarming statistics released by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) show that:

  • Three out of every five home deaths caused by fire are in properties where there are no smoke alarms that work. That’s 60%!
  • More than a third – a total of 38% – of fire-caused deaths in homes are in properties where there aren’t any smoke alarms at all. 
  • In homes where there are working smoke alarms, the risk of dying in a home fire is halved. 

Types of Smoke Alarms

A smoke alarm is designed to detect smoke and sound an alarm that will make people inside a building realize that there is a fire. Many multi-family developments have smoke detectors that are integrated into an alarm system. But smoke detectors merely detect smoke and do not sound an alarm. In large buildings and residential complexes, smoke detectors are commonly used to transmit a signal to a control unit that will sound the alarm throughout that particular premises. 

There are two main types of smoke alarm available, photoelectric and ionization. But the catch is that they detect different types of fires, photoelectric responding best to smoldering fires and ionization alarms to flaming fires. 

For this reason, the USFA recommends that both types, or dual-sensor smoke alarms that incorporate both types, are used in every home, particularly in bedrooms and any other places inhabitant sleep.  

It is also prudent to install sprinkler systems in homes. 

Report on Smoke Alarms Used in U.S. Homes

A report released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in January 2019 discusses the performance of smoke alarms in home fires as well as the benefits of having working smoke alarms. The report, by Marty Ahrens titled Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires, examines reasons why smoke alarms don’t always operate, and how different power sources can affect performance. Additionally, it assesses the difference in the performance of smoke alarms in one- and two-family homes compared to apartments and multi-family homes.  

Chilling facts included in the report are drawn from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). 

Between 2012 and 2016, there were smoke alarms in 74% of the homes where fires were reported to various U.S. fire departments, but only 53% functioned when the fire broke out. 

In terms of fatalities, 40% of the homes where people died didn’t have any smoke alarms and 17% had smoke alarms that weren’t working. The death rate calculated for every 1,000 home fires that were reported during this period was more than double in homes where there weren’t smoke alarms or they weren’t working versus homes that had operative alarms (12.3 versus 5.7). 

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In the homes where there were smoke alarms that didn’t function and sound the alarm, about 43% of the alarms had batteries that were missing or had been disconnected. Dead batteries were found to have been the cause of 25% that failed to operate. 


It Is Illegal NOT to Have Smoke Alarms in Your Home

National legislation and local building codes have detailed requirements for fire alarm system devices, including smoke detectors. In New York City, for instance, both the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code 2019 and NYC Building Code have mandatory fire alarm requirements. New York State recently changed its legislation regarding smoke alarms and retailers are now only allowed to sell units that have 10-year non-replaceable batteries. 

While NFPA 72 is mandatory throughout Illinois, companies offering engineering solutions in Chicago will advise that even though the state’s revised Smoke Detector Act demands the installation of new smoke detectors with special, quite pricey, sealed batteries by January 1, 2023, the City of Chicago is exempt. So too are homes with smoke detectors that are hardwired or that run on low-powered radio frequencies or Wi-Fi. 

But nobody living anywhere in the U.S. can ignore NFPA 72, the legislation that requires a smoke alarm in every room used for sleeping as well as outside all sleeping areas and on every level of multi-story homes, including basements. The reason for this is because half of all home fire deaths occur between 11 at night and 7 in the morning – when most people are sleeping. 

If you are sure what is required in your part of the country (or world), get professional advice. 

How to Ensure Smoke Alarms Save Lives

fire safety burning house


The NFPA has lots of useful advice to help ensure that smoke alarms will save lives in the event of a fire. For instance:

  • Smoke alarms should be fitted on the ceiling or at the top of walls.
  • To reduce the possibility of false alarms avoid using smoke alarms in kitchens. If the kitchen area is open-plan, make sure the alarm is at least 10 feet/3 meters away from the stove, oven, or hob. 
  • Don’t install smoke alarms near doors, windows, or anywhere that a draft could interfere with their functionality. 
  • Never paint or attempt to decorate smoke alarms – it could prevent them from working properly, or at all. 
  • It is always best to use smoke alarms that are interconnected because when one is activated all the rest are too. Be sure they all of the same make or they may not work properly. 
  • Test your smoke alarms at least once a month to make sure they are working – regardless of the type you have. Even units with 10-year (long-life) batteries must be tested once a month. 
  • Unless you have units with 10-year non-replaceable batteries, replace batteries regularly, at least once a year. 
  • Replace all types of smoke alarms 10 years after manufacture. This date will be on the back of the unit.  
  • Never be tempted to remove the battery from a smoke alarm for use somewhere else. Don’t ever forget that the consequences could be fatal!
  • Make a habit of keeping doors in the house closed because this can slow down the spread of smoke, heat, and flames. 
  • The function of all smoke alarms is to sound a warning. If a smoke alarm is activated, get out of the house as quickly as possible and stay outside. Call the fire department immediately. 
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Of course, not all the people who have died in home fires were sleeping at the time. In fact, Marty Ahrens’ report states that those who were fatally injured in homes fires that had working smoke alarms were less likely to have been sleeping than those who succumbed in fires that didn’t have working smoke alarms. Mostly, they were either in the area where the fire started, possibly even involved with the ignition of the fire (possibly smoking in bed or cooking over an open flame), fighting the fire, or they had a disability and/or were over the age of 75. 

Awareness and education are essential. Spread the word to save lives.

Twitter @ny_engineers

Michael TobiasMichael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.